Messi appeared in court alongside his father Jorge
LIONEL Messi has today been handed a PRISON sentence for tax fraud – but he is unlikely to spend a day behind bars.
The Argentina and Barcelona star was sentenced to 21 months in jail when he appeared in court this morning, according to Spanish media.
The £256,000-a-week star was also fined £1.7 million – six seeks’ wages – by a court in Barcelona.
Superstar Messi, considered the world’s best player, was tried alongside his father Jorge after defrauding Spain’s tax authority of 4.1m euros (£3.19m) from 2007-09.
During the trial, prosecutors said tax havens in Belize and Uruguay were used to conceal huge earnings from his lucrative image rights.
Messi, 29, said he “knew nothing” about his financial affairs because he was busy “playing football”, adding that he signed documents without reading them.
He told the court last month: “The truth is no, the truth is no, I didn’t know.
“As my dad explained earlier I just dedicated myself to playing football, I put my trust in my father, in the lawyers who had decided to manage this thing.”
Jorge Messi claimed he did not have enough knowledge to orchestrate such a fraud, blaming his tax consultants instead.
But a judge disagreed and found both men complicit in the crime, which concerned Messi’s image rights with companies including Adidas, Pepsi-Cola, Danone, Procter and Gamble, Banco Sabadell and the Kuwait Food Company.
Government prosecutor Mario Maza told the court the pair could not prove their innocence and were not able to show that the player did not have at least some knowledge of the corporate structures created to lower his tax burden in Spain.
Asking for jail sentences of 22 months for both men, he noted that in particular the player “knew more than he made it appear in court”, adding that both father and son had “showed no credibility” as witnesses.
But despite being handed the prison sentence it is unlikely either of them will serve any time behind bars, because the punishment is set to be suspended.
A jail term of under two years in duration usually results in a period of probation under Spanish law, meaning the fleet-footed attacker will only spend time inside if he commits another crime during the next two years.
Messi has also already made a voluntary payment of £3.8m – back in August 2013 – to cover unpaid tax and interest. The pair could now appeal their sentences in the Spanish supreme court.
The news immediately sparked a flurry of memes on social media predicting the reaction of Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo – a long-time rival of Messi for the tag of world’s greatest player.
And sports journalist Tancredi Palmeri sardonically noticed that Messi’s sentence marked “another thing in common” between him and Argentina great Maradonna, to whom he is so often compared.
BBC presenter Gary Lineker said the judgement would mean “tax frauds the world over will be looking to move to Spain”, whilst former England cricketer Michael Vaughan quipped about Messi’s quick feet, tweeting: “Messi is so good he can even avoid prison.”
And singer Lily Allen said she felt the star had been treated too lightly, writing: “Apparently Messi will not go to jail as sentence is under 24 months. So that makes sense. #HappyRichWhiteManDay”.
But others came to his defence including US Football player Ethan White, who plays for Frank Lampard’s New York City FC, who tweeted: “Leave Messi alone. Let him be great.”
Messi – a five-time Ballon d’Or winner – recently retired from international duty with Argentina after missing a penalty in the Copa America final, saying he was fated to never have success with the national team.